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Personal time management for techies

Project description


Personal time management for techies

Buzz through crazy busy days with as little stress as possible. Stay focused by seeing only one task at a time. Use this simple, fast, and fun tool all day with the keyboard in a familiar terminal environment.

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Using Busy? Contact us!_



pipx install busy


Busy is built with the following usage principles in mind:

  • Monotasking: We each focus better when we work on exactly one task at a time. So busy only shows you one task.
  • Keyboard-driven: Productive people use the keyboard effectively, because muscle memory builds up over time, and it's faster to hit a key than to find an icon on a screen and move the pointer.
  • Offline use: It's designed to run on your laptop or desktop computer, without needing an internet connection, so it works extremely fast under any conditions.
  • Multi-platform Because Busy is a terminal-based application, it will run on MacOS, Linux, or Windows.
  • Personal: Busy is not a collaboration platform or project management application. It's for managing your personal time, not assigning things to others.
  • Importance over Urgency: Stop stressing out over last-minute tasks and impending deadlines! Busy makes it easy to capture future tasks and remember to do them early enough to reduce the pressure.
  • Editable data: The data is stored in text files, which can easily be edited outside of Busy itself. (In fact, Busy started as a todo.txt type of approach and grew from there.)

The idea of Importance over Urgency comes from the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". Although we firmly disagree with Steven Covey's statements on gay rights, the book contains excellent ideas.


You'll need a terminal emulator to access a command or shell prompt. Examples include:

  • iTerm2 or Terminal on MacOS
  • Gnome Terminal or XTerm on Linux
  • CMD on Windows
  • Terminator on all platforms

Busy requires pipx, which requires Python 3.6 or later. To check whether you already have the right version of Python on your system, start your terminal emulator and type:

python3 -V

If you don't have Python, or your version is out of date, install or upgrade it. In most cases, you'll want to do so using your system's package manager (such as Homebrew on MacOS or APT on Ubuntu). If you're not familiar with package managers, then download Python from the site directly and follow the instructions provided there. When done, use the version check above to confirm it's installed and the version is 3.6.5 or greater.

Python comes with PIP, which enables installation of Python packages from a central server called PyPI.

Once Python and PIP are installed, type:

pip3 install pipx
pipx install busy

To upgrade it later:

pipx upgrade busy


Busy ships with two user interfaces, both of them terminal-based and keyboard-driven:

  • Shell UI - A command-line interface (CLI) using shell conventions and called directly from the shell, one command at a time.
  • Curses UI - A faster, more visual interface with one-key commands that remains visible the entire time it's being used.

Some commands also use your favorite terminal-based text editor, such as Emacs, vi, or Nano. It's possible to use Busy without a text editor, but functionality is limited.

Busy's core model is a collection of Items, which are typically tasks but can also be discussion topics, groceries to buy, or anything else you like. Items are organized into Queues, which are named sets of Items to do. You work on the top Item in a Queue, and when it's done, that Item gets marked as "done", to reveal the next one. There is a default Queue (called "tasks") but you can also create other Queues, for example a shopping list or discussion list.

Busy actually moves Items between States within each Queue. Each Queue contains a Collection (ordered list) of Items for each State. The States are:

  • todo: Current Items for you to work on, discuss, or buy now.
  • done: Items that have been done, with the date completed.
  • plan: Items that have been deferred to a future date, with that date.

Using the Shell UI

To get started, add some tasks to your default Queue.

busy add --description "Donate to the Busy project"
busy add --description "Phone mom"
busy add --description "Do the laundry"
busy add --description "Take a shower"

Then, when you're ready to start your day, ask Busy what to do first:

busy show


Take a shower

That's the last Item you added, because Busy adds items to the top of the queue, turning it into a [LIFO stack](

When you've finished that task, mark it off to find the next task.

busy finish

It will ask you to confirm that you're done. Then request the next task:

busy show

Which will tell you what to do next:

Do the laundry

If you want to see the whole Queue, with sequence numbers, type:

busy list

Here's the list you will see. Note that the completed Task is gone:

1  Do the laundry
2  Phone mom
3  Donate to the Busy project

If you decide, in the moment, to wait until later today to perform a task, drop it to the bottom of the Queue using the drop command:

busy drop

Then busy list will return:

1  Phone mom
2  Donate to the Busy project
3  Do the laundry

If you see a task on the list that seems urgent, and you intend to perform it immediately, pop it to the top of the list:

busy pop --criteria 2

Our use of the term "pop" for a command doesn't quite fit with the computing term "pop". It might change in the future.

Then busy show will return:

Donate to the Busy project

Let's say you realize that it's not an appropriate task for today, but you want to defer it to tomorrow:

busy defer

It will ask you to confirm "tomorrow" as the day for deferral. Agree with it for now. The Item will then be moved into the plan State with tomorrow's date as the plan date.

At the start of a new day, tell Busy to add all the previously deferred Items to the current Queue:

busy activate


Here's a summary of the commands in Busy.

  • add adds a new item to the top of the queue. The item description may be included after the command or typed on the next line.
  • show gets the top item in the queue, referred to as the "current" item.
  • resource shows the URL (if any) prefixed with an "@" symbol
  • base is like show, but removes resources, followons, and tags
  • list lists the items in the queue in order with their sequence numbers.
  • pop moves a task or set of items to the top of a queue.
  • drop moves a task or set of items to the bottom of a queue.
  • delete permanently removes a task or set of items from a queue.
  • edit opens a text editor to edit items - the default is to edit only the top item.
  • manage is the same as edit, but defaults to edit the whole collection.
  • finish moves a task or tasks from the todo state to the done state, so it's complete. Good job!
  • defer moves a task or set of tasks from the todo state and schedules it or them to reappear at a future date in the plan state.
  • activate moves current tasks from the plan state to the todo state. Get to work!
  • queues to list all the queues.
  • tags to list all the tags.
  • curses launches the Curses UI, and is also the default if no command is provided.

Here are some of the options which apply to some or all of the commands:

  • A queue name, which does not need an option designation
  • --help to find out which options apply
  • --criteria to designate items to be acted upon, using sequence numbers or tags
  • --yes to skip confirmation of any command that requires it
  • --description for the item description (add command only)
  • --state to work on Items of a different state
  • --timing applies to the defer command

Sequence numbers

Sequence numbers appear in the output from the list command. Note that the numbering starts with 1, and is not an ID -- the number of a item will change when the collection is modified. So always reference the most recent output from the list command.

Sequence numbers are used with the --criteria option, which can be shortened to -c. To designate more than one item, separate the sequence numbers with a space.

Another choice is ranges. A range of sequence numbers is separated by a hyphen, with no whitespace, and is inclusive. For example, 4-6 designates items 4, 5, and 6. A hyphen without a number after it includes all the items from that item to the end of the queue. A hyphen on its own indicates the last item in the queue.

Below are some examples of task designations by sequence number.

  • busy pop -c 5 pops item number 5
  • busy drop -c 3-7 drops items 3 through 7 (4 items)
  • busy list -c 3- lists all the items from number 3 through the end of the list
  • busy delete -c 3 5 7 9 deletes only the items designated
  • busy defer -c - defers the last task
  • busy edit -c -4 is an error! Use busy edit -c 1-4 instead
  • busy manage allows you to edit the entire queue

Items will always be handled in the order they appear in the queue, regardless of the order the criteria are provided. So for example, if a pop command designates some items, they will be moved to the top of the queue in the order, relative to each other, they currently appear in the queue.

The sequence numbers in the list command output are from the collection itself. So the list command does not modify the sequence numbers, even when item designation is applied.


Items can have tags, which are space-separated hashtags in the item description. An item can have no tags, one tag, or more than one tag. For example the following item description has the tag "errands":

go to the supermarket #errands

The only punctuation that tags can contain is the hyphen ("-").

Hash tags may be used as criteria in addition to sequence numbers. For example, the following command will move all the items with the #errands tag to the top of the queue.

busy pop -c #errands

Whitespace-separated criteria are additive -- that is, a logical OR. For example, the following command will delete all the admin tasks, sales tasks, and tasks 3 and 4.

busy delete -c #admin #sales 3 4

Note to self: why does this work? Shouldn't the hash symbol indicate a comment?

Default item designations

For the most part, commands that accept item designations default to only act on the top item in the queue. The exceptions are:

  • list and manage default to handle the entire collection
  • pop defaults to pop the last item in the collection to the top
  • activate defaults to activate plan items for today (more on that below)

Alternate queues

Busy will manage any number of queues, which are entirely separate sets of items. For example, you might have a shopping queue for items to buy at the store, and a movies queue for films you'd like to watch. The default queue is called tasks.

To designate an alternate queue, enter it right after the command. For example:

busy add shopping -d "Skimmed Milk"
busy list movies

Managing plans

Busy supports several specific commands related to planning -- that is, scheduling tasks for the future. They are finish, defer, and activate. The task-specific commands handle items in the plan state and, in some cases, the done state.

The task commands accept criteria. The defer and finish commands reference the todo collection; the activate command references the plan collection. The default for defer and finish is the top item in the collection; the default for activate is to activate only plans deferred to today or earlier.

Planning by date

Planning is by date, not time, and is relative to the current date according to the system clock.

In the defer command, the date can be specified using the --timing option. If the option is omitted, then the date can be provided as input during confirmation.

The date may take any of the following forms:

  • A specific date in YYYY-MM-DD format, such as 2018-10-28. Slashes are also acceptable, but the order is always year, then month, then day.
  • A specific date without the year in MM-DD format, such as 7-4, which will defer the item to that date in the future (even if it's in the next year).
  • A specific day of the month as a simple integer, such as 12, which will defer the item to that day of the month, in either the current month or the next month.
  • An integer, a space, and the word day or days, such as 4 days, which will defer the item to that number of days from today.
  • An integer without a space and the letter d, such as 4d, which is a short form of 4 days.
  • The word tomorrow, which is also the default if no date is provided.
  • The word today, which is a little odd but obvious.

As an example, the following command will defer tasks 4, 5, and 6 from the todo collection to the date 4 days from today, keeping them in the plan collection until that date.

busy defer -c 4-6 -t "4 days"

Note that the plan collection is keeping the task information (verbatim from the todo collection) along with the date information (as an absolute date).

To pull tasks from the plan collection and put them back into the todo collection, use the activate command. There are two ways to use the activate command:

  • With no criteria, in which case Busy activates all the tasks scheduled for today or earlier, bringing the todo list up to date
  • With designated items from the plan collection; note that the activate command accepts item designation from the plan queue itself so use busy list -s plan first to get the right list.

Finishing and following up

The finish command removes the designated Task (or the top task if none is designated) from the todo state and adds it to the done state, with today's date to indicate when it was completed.

Optionally, a task can have a "followon", which is another task to be added as a todo after the first task is finished. Followons are described in a task using an arrow notation. In the following example, the task "eat" has a followon task "drink":

eat --> drink

Note that the hyphens and whitespace are optional; really the marker that matters for delimiting a followon is the right angle bracket (">"). Also note that right angle bracket is not a valid character elsewhere in a task description.

When the finish command is executed on the task above, the "eat" task will be recorded as "done" and the "drink" task will be added to the top of the todo list.

Note that followons can be chained. For example, when the finish command is run on the task illustrated below, a new task "drink > be merry" will be added to the todo collection`. Only when that Task is finished will the "be merry" task itself appear.

eat > drink > be merry

Repeating tasks

A special type of followon is the repeat. In this case, instead of adding the next task to the top of the todo list, the entire current task -- including the followon itself -- is entered into the plan collection at some point in the future. Repeats allow for easy management of repeating tasks. Some examples follow.

  • check email --> repeat in 1 day
  • phone mom --> repeat on sunday
  • balance the checkbook --> repeat on 6

The exact syntax for a Repeat is the word "repeat" followed by either "on" or "in" and a relative date phrase -- the same phrases that work with the defer command.

Note that the repetition itself only happens when the finish command is executed. The completed task (i.e. "check email") is entered in the done list and then the entire task (with the Repeat) is scheduled in the plan list for the appropriate time in the future.

Editing items

The edit and manage commands launch the user's default text editor to directly edit a task, the whole queue, or part of a queue. Note that edit and manage are identical commands except for their default criteria.

The definition of the "default text editor" depends on the OS and configuration but here's the logic:

  1. Try the EDITOR environment variable
  2. If that doesn't exist, try the sensible-editor command (Ubuntu)
  3. If that doesn't exist, try the open -W command (OSX)

You must save changes and quit the editor to accept the change back into Busy.

The edit command with no criteria will edit the top item in the list, and the manage command with no criteria will edit the entire list. But it's also possible to designate items to be edited with both commands using criteria. The commands do their best to replace the edited items in place in the list order. So if you edit or manage a tag whose items are recently popped (at the top of the collection), then the edited items will still appear at the top. Even if you add items, they will be inserted after the last item in the edited set, not at the end of the queue. But all the items brought up in the editor will be edited. So if you remove an item in the editor, it will be deleted and the others will be moved up to take its place.

For faster daily use - the Curses UI

Busy suports multiple user interfaces. The command line interface described above is the shell interface. The alternative is the curses UI, which draws an entirely new terminal in the same window.

We get it - "curses" is a terrible name. It's a reference to the underlying technology.

In the Curses UI, commands can be triggered with single keystrokes, and only act on their default items (usually the top task). The UI always displays the current queue (which is always tasks for now) and the current (top) todo item` at the top of the screen.

To invoke the curses UI, type:

busy curses

Or it's the default so just type:


Commands within the UI are shown with a single letter underlined. The underlined letter is the keystroke that will invoke the command. Use q to quit. When inside a command, use ctrl-C to cancel the command and return to the main menu.

Data storage

Busy keeps the collections in plain text files, so if the tool doesn't do something you want, you may edit the files. The files are in a directory together, referred to as the "root". Each file is the named according to the following convention:


If a required file is missing, it will be created automatically. So typically, the root includes tasks.todo.psv, tasks.plan.psv, tasks.done.txt, and any number of custom queue files.

Technically, Busy data files are pipe-delimited data files, though the todo collections only have one field ("description") while the plan and done files have only two fields (date and description).

Busy is not a database (yet). There is no support for managing separate fields in the Busy tool itself.

The root is designated in one of the following ways, which are tried in order.

  • The --root option on any command
  • The BUSY_ROOT environment variable, if no --root option is provided
  • A directory at ~/.busy, which will be generated as needed if no --root option or BUSY_ROOT environment variable are provided,

Note that the --root option must come after busy but command-specific options (--yes, --to, --for, and --queue) must come after commands.

The following example shows the --root option with command-specific options on the same command line.

busy --root ~/.config/busy defer --t tuesday

Note that Busy does not support concurrency or locking in any form. If two commands are executing at the same time, they might overwrite each other. Overwriting is especially risky with the edit and manage commands, which keeps the user's editor open until they close it.

The format is designed to be simple but not idiot-proof. Experimentation might result in unintended consequences.


The code is intended to demonstrate some Python best practices:

  • Object-oriented with classes and subclasses.
  • Dynamic configuration using a unique approach we call "class families" - for example, the names of the commands are properties of the command classes, not in a big "if" statement.
  • Extensive testing with high test coverage, guaranteed by CI.
  • Leverage the standard library by requiring 3rd party PIP modules for development, but not for usage.

To set everything up:

  • Requires Python 3.6.5 or later
  • Clone the repo and CD into it
  • Set up a venv if that's your thing
  • pip install -r requirements/freeze.txt
  • To run it: python -m busy ...

We use Visual Studio Code to build Busy, so there is a VS Code configuration file in the repository.

Then to run the test suite:

make test

Or to run test coverage:

make cover

And to check style:

make style

Note to self: To publish a new build, use 'vernum' with 'major', 'minor', or 'patch' depending on how major the changes were since the last build. Then push. GitLab allows you to publish to PyPI via CI/CD, and only when Vernum has been run.

Command summary

Below is a reference list of Busy commands, real and imagined.

Short Full Interactive
a add a
c activate c
d delete d
e edit e
f defer f
down j
l list
m manage
n finish n
o pop o
p print p
quit q
r drop r
s skip s
t tags
queues (list)
up u
switch (queues) w

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